Today is Remembrance Day. Today is also the most celebrated day in the lunar Hindu calendar, Diwali, the 'Festival of Lights'. A memorial day observed in all Commonwealth nations for those who died in the armed forces during the First World War may seem a wholly more sober occasion than the abundance of food, gifts and glitz that is Diwali. However, the very essence of Diwali's mythology is about the triumph of Lord Rama, who went to war with the demon-king Ravana in order to rescue his wife, Sita. The Festival of Lights is the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness.
It feels urgent to reflect on these two arenas of death and life; two sides of the same coin. Although Remembrance Day is a national holiday in France, it is a very muted affair. Diwali is practically non-existent. Contrary to this quietude, I am reminded of the richness and diversity of the 1970's and 80's London in which I grew up, where I felt as much a part of the national culture buying my red poppy, as I did inviting my English, Turkish and Mauritian friends for Diwali to my house. Thirty years ago, there was no UKIP pushing to leave the European Union, and no bickering about closing borders to migrants and war refugees.
The European Union was formed after the Second World War specifically to foster collaboration, on the basis that countries trading with each other were unlikely to go to war. In spite of the differences in culture, language, and individual member governments, Europe has been relatively stable for the past 70 years, the longest period of general peace in its history. As the veterans of war get older with time, it is easy for the younger generations, who have never been involved in a war (myself included), to take this peace for granted. For people to assume that there could never again be all out war in Europe, is a mistake.
Of course, in and amongst our remembrance for those who died, it is important to reflect on the progress of the past decades. I know first hand the freedom of being able to live and move around Europe with such ease; having a British education, the opportunity to learn and work in German, marrying a French man and expanding myself to include difference in ways I had never imagined as a child. More crucial than reflecting though, is to apply the lessons of war, which the countries of Europe are not presently doing.
The wealth of my life experience is a far cry from the current polls that state 40% of the UK population are in favour of leaving the European Union, or the ongoing rise of the Front National in France, where the mayor and council of a town voted to receive only those Syrian refugees who were Christians into their midst. The present drive towards nationalism is moving us as individuals to close our minds from those who are different, making us more and more unwilling to engage with alternate beliefs and views. The cultural and language differences in a one-on-one relationship are not easy, so I can only imagine how fraught the political landscape must be.
The significance of today for me, as both Remembrance Day and Diwali, is that I don't become someone on the sidelines. Reflecting on and remembering is to engage, share, value and respect the basic tenets of human rights for all humanity, which so many people have fought and died for all over the world.